Source: Photo by Hamish Duncan on Unsplash
Many of us have wisely decided to stay at home and avoid crowds and the risk of either catching the virus or unintentionally infecting other people. You may find yourself feeling isolated, depressed, bored, worried, ruminating, and hopeless. You are not alone. We are going through a national traumatic experience where many people believe their lives are imminently threatened, that the economy will collapse and never recover, and that life will never be the same.
(See my posts, Are You Worried About the Coronavirus?, and Coronavirus Anxiety.)
The key thing to keep in mind is that we actually don’t know what will happen, but we do know that an enormous national and world effort is underway to try to contain the spread and lessen the effects. We are at the early stage and we are never going to know what the next month or two will bring until that time comes. Meanwhile, we are all in a national emergency together. And we have been asked to reduce our interactions, distance ourselves, and–in some cases—stay at home.
We know that isolation and passivity are the perfect storm for getting depressed and staying depressed. It is possible that you wake up in the morning, worried, anxious and depressed and think that there is nothing to do and that you are completely isolated. How can you cope with this indefinite period of being housebound?
- Normalize your feelings. We often feel we cannot tolerate our unpleasant emotions—that we should be coping better. This is like feeling bad about feeling bad. But it is normal to feel anxious, afraid, helpless and overwhelmed when dealing with a trauma. This is a trauma. We are all fearful of horrible things happening to people we know and to ourselves. You are not a robot. You are entitled to feel bad. But you are also entitled to do what you can to feel less bad—even to feel better at times. So, let’s work on what we can control—and realize that we cannot control what we do not know.
- Reach out to friends and family. Just because you are “shut in” doesn’t mean you are “shut off.” Make a list of friends—even people you haven’t had contact with in the past several years. Think about family members—list them as well. Then begin to email or text some of them that you would like to touch base with and check in. In fact, has it occurred to you that your smartphone is actually a phone? I know; I seldom call people on the phone, but this “novel” experience can really be uplifting. So, think about taking that step and call some people. Video platforms are also very useful. Use Skype or Zoom or other free services to actually see each other. Keep track of your experience and how it feels after. Try to reach out to someone every day.
- Schedule daily activities. Just because you are at home doesn’t mean there is nothing to do. I am probably like you that there are a lot of things that I have procrastinated on. The night before the next day, make a list of things that you can do during the next day. This is your TO DO LIST FOR TOMORROW. The great thing about a list for the next day is that you wake up and you know that there are things that you will do. This will give you an hourly purpose, a sense of being effective, and will help distract you from your worries. My TO DO LIST FOR TODAY is phone and video sessions with patients, talking with colleagues, writing a blog, reading some articles, calling some friends, organizing my tax information, eating lunch, making dinner, watching a video, getting some exercise and spending time with my wife. Sounds like a pretty good day to me. Each activity has a purpose. At the end of the day look at your TO DO list and check off what you did and what it feels like to have done it. If there are items you missed, put them on the list for tomorrow. Make a list for the next week, month, and two months. This is a classic CBT technique called Activity Scheduling and Behavioral Activation. The more you do, the more you keep busy, the better you will feel.
- View this as free time. You probably are familiar with the feeling that you never have enough time to do what you want to do. But now you have plenty of time. Of course, realistically you won’t be able to do a lot of things that you have enjoyed in the past. But try to think of this as a sabbatical—you are on your own to do what you choose to do for a couple of weeks. (We don’t know, of course, how long we will need to do this.) But this is your time to do what you want to do. So, use it wisely. Ruminating and worry will not help. Get back to your list of things to do. Do them.
- Do what you have been putting off. When thinking about your free time you can identify the tasks that you have been putting off. For me it is getting the last batch of information for my tax returns. That’s something I seem to put off every year, but I find that it is actually less burdensome than I thought it would be. So, make a PROCRASTINATION LIST and start working on it. This might be household chores, reorganizing that closet, decluttering your apartment or house, contacting people you have fallen out of touch with, or cleaning your home.
- Get some exercise. You can stream YOUTUBE videos that can serve as your personal trainer to nag you to get some exercise in your home. You don’t need a fancy gym to exercise. You can do Yoga, sit-ups, run in place, and other exercises right at home. Getting your pulse rate up, pushing yourself a little more will get those endorphins going. Go for it. Just DO IT.
- Eat and drink wisely. When we are stressed we often overeat or eat junk food or drink too much. Keep an eye on this problem. In fact, why not dedicate this time to getting really healthy? Think about this as a retreat, a spa, a healthy time where you will plan your meals and limit or even eliminate drinking. Another opportunity that you have right now is to cook creatively. I like to try new recipes that I look up or experiment with my own ideas—which are not always a great success. You can even get back to the basics your grandparents knew—like making your own bread, healthy soups, and other creative and delicious things for your home-made menu.
- Make a list of reading and videos. I read a lot—but I am always feeling that I don’t have time for all the reading I want to do. So now is the time for that. It’s wonderful that you can access a lot of free books through your public library— you can download e-books and audiobooks for free. Go to your public library website and see how you can access these items. Now is a time to get absorbed in a good read—something that is not related to pandemics.
- Support someone who is having a difficult time. We are all in this together and we need to support each other. One way of feeling connected and finding meaning is to check on someone who might be having an especially difficult time—perhaps someone who lives alone or someone who is prone to depression and anxiety. Making that call or sending a text to see how they are doing might make someone feel less isolated. And you will feel better doing it. Ironically, sometimes when we help someone else we give the most help to ourselves.
- Challenge your hopelessness. We need to take this pandemic seriously because many people will die. But we don’t know what the future might be. The chances of any one person dying from this is very small. But, still, take it seriously by following the CDC guidelines. It is possible that things might subside or that the virus will not be as virulent as we now believe. We don’t know. But rather than trying to predict the future try to focus on today and the next week. Don’t use your emotions to predict what life will be like next month. We know that things have improved significantly in recent weeks in China. Maybe that can happen for us as well.
Keep in mind that you do have control over what you do every day. Try these steps and reach out to others for suggestions. Every day is up to you. Keep track of everything that you are doing—and plan to do.
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